Sunday, April 18, 2010

Tabletop Garden

In the darkest days of this past winter when it was endlessly cold and rainy I decided I needed a project to bring me out of the creeping dreary doldrums. I recalled my mother must have felt the same way at times too, because when I was a teenager we regularly had a mini-indoor garden. We were big on terrariums – my mother preferred a giant brandy snifter in which she would artfully arrange her pint-sized plants. We were into the bonsai movement for a while, too – then she would patiently clip and mold tiny trees into elegant works of art.

It took a full week to locate and gather up all the necessary elements for my planned terrarium – which, in itself was an injection of pure entertainment. In the clearance aisle at TJ Maxx a tall hand blown speckled vase caught my eye.

One rainy afternoon looking for herb candidates I stopped by Gray’s, my local nursery. Too early, I was told, and instead was ushered to their dwindling indoor plant section where I prodded and debated until I narrowed it to three: a curly grass that apparently loves moisture, a charming purple-tinged shamrock plant, and a small sturdy fern. I even found a bag of activated charcoal to keep the soil sweet.

Back at home, I rooted through my arts and crafts box and came up with a bag of colorful glass baubles that would work for drainage on the bottom - instead of pebbles. Outside in my storage locker I discovered an old bag of potting soil and set it aside, too.

By the following weekend I was ready to assemble my terrarium. In short order I had my hands deep in the soft, moist dirt and was puttering and fussing - and before I knew it, I felt my spirits shift. I hummed as I gently nestled my charges into their new digs. In no time I had created my own tiny serenity garden – pretty enough to deserve a place of honor in my kitchen.

Through those long dark winter days my terrarium became a constant source of revelation and entertainment. There were times I would move it about the house – and wherever it landed it graced the space with added life and color. Mostly though, my winter garden has stayed in the kitchen - where it shoots out brilliant flashes of green that sparkle and dance as the light shifts from drab and dull to crisp and bright.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Gingersnaps meet Pork

Easter week I decided I would create a nice meal incorporating pork and cabbage. That certainly left a universe of options, so I’m not quite sure how I ended up fiddling with Sauerbraten.   I confess, I don’t believe I  had ever tasted it before either. 

With than in mind, I commence from a place of curiosity - rather than familiarity.  I suspect the reason I had never made Sauerbraten is because of the gingersnap issue. I’ve always liked the idea of adding this yummy cookie as a final fillip to the dish, but of course that would require having some on hand. Alas, this just happened to be the serendipitous situation, when I discovered a few stragglers in the freezer - left from the holidays.

Granted, Sauerbraten is traditionally made from a tough cut of beef or game allowed to sit in a flavorful marinade for days before cooking to tenderize and tame it; in the olden times it would have likely acted as a preserving agent, as well. I began with a tender and lean top boneless pork loin roast and decided to take a little creative license by searing it first, then simmering it in its marinade until tender… with a final sojourn in the refrigerator. I’m far happier accomplishing as much work as possible up front – and not waiting until crunch time.

The roast marinates in the fridge a day or so with an occasional turn to evenly absorb flavors. It is returned to the stove for a simple re-heat and kept warm while the sauce is prepared with the lovely waiting gingersnaps. It sounds crazy, but it works deliciously.

By this time, the sauce has developed some serious complexity compounded by the beautiful balance of spicy sweetness from those devilish gingersnaps against the earthy tartness of the marinade.  Dribble this noble sauce over the amazing sliced meat; offer Braised Cabbage with Juniper Berries, some Buttered Noodles with Sautéed Mushrooms, and you’ll understand why this is considered one of the world’s most famous dishes.

(loosely adapted from Bobby Flay, Food Network)

2 tablespoons canola oil
3 pounds top boneless pork loin roast, (or 3-4 lb. boned and rolled beef rump roast)
salt and pepper

1 medium onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 stalk celery, coarsely chopped
1 large carrot, peeled and sliced thin
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1 1/2 cups water
6 whole cloves, and same # juniper berries, opt.
8 juniper berries (optional)
8 black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds, or whole grained mustard
1/2 tsp. thyme
1/2 teaspoon salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons flour
6 - 2" gingersnaps, finely crushed with rolling pin
2 tablespoons honey, or to taste

Braised Cabbage
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large yellow onion, peeled, halved and thinly sliced
2 pounds red or green cabbage, cored and shredded
1/2 cup reserved cooking liquid from sauerbraten
1/2 cup chicken or vegetable stock
1 Tablespoons juniper berries
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Noodles with Mushrooms
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
8 ounces portabella mushrooms, sliced
1 clove garlic
2 tablespoons chives or green onions
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 pound egg noodles, cooked al dente

Heat the 2 Tbsp. oil in a large Dutch oven. Season the roast with salt and pepper and sear 2-3 minutes on each side. Remove the roast.

To the pot, add the onion, celery, carrot and garlic and toss briefly. Add the vinegars, water, and seasonings through thyme, salt and pepper. Return the meat and allow to simmer 2-3 hours, turning every hour hour, until it is tender but not falling apart. Place the meat in a storage container. Allow the marinade to cool, strain it and pour over the roast. Refrigerate 1-3 days, turn occasionally to allow marinade to infuse entire cut.

To finish, slowly reheat roast in marinade, when hot carefully remove meat to a platter and keep warm.

To make the sauce: In a saucepan, heat butter and add flour to make a roux. Set aside approximately 1/2 cup marinade for the braised cabbage. Add the remaining liquid to the pan to create a thick gravy-like sauce. Add the crumbled gingersnaps, adjust with honey to taste, salt and pepper as needed.

Carve the roast, serve topped with some of the sauce, along with Braised Cabbage and Noodles with Mushrooms. Serves 6-8.

Braised Cabbage:  Heat butter in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add onion and cook until soft. Add the cabbage, cooking liquid, stock, the juniper berries, and season with salt and pepper, to taste. Cover and cook until the cabbage is wilted, about 15 to 20 minutes.

Noodles with Mushrooms:  Saute the mushrooms in butter and garlic, salt and pepper and cook to release juices, add the green onions. Cook the noodles in a large pot of boiling salted water until al dente. Drain well, toss with the mushrooms, and adjust seasoning.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Easter Eggs

My friend Becky raises chickens and literally swells with pride when she shares her eggs with me.  And for heaven’s sakes, why not? They are gorgeous. Their thick shells vary in shades from pale tan to brown, some are speckled – each is unique and unlike the next. They are nature’s original edible art.

Becky's organic eggs are a reminder of what  real eggs should taste like – and are so delicious that these days I am savoring them in their simplest forms.

For example, I’m back to poached eggs again. I love to break them into a small dish and gently slip them into simmering water, then wait and watch as their brilliant orange yolks are miraculously transformed into delicate pink orbs and their whites gather about them in firm opaque ovals. Utterly amazing.

These beauties require no special fussing, only a quick removal with my favorite slotted spoon and onto waiting toast. It doesn’t get any better than that.  Thanks Becky!


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